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This was originally published as exclusive content, in Robert Christgau's And It Don't Stop newsletter. You can have Christgau's posts delivered to your mailbox if you subscribe.

Consumer Guide: December, 2020

Gender defiant hip-hop, environmental hip-hop, and free-form hip-hop. Plus: enraged guitar chanters get philosophical, Christmas songs get sad, and the baddest woman in country music comes alive.

Backxwash: Deviancy (Grimalkin) Raised in Zambia and sent off to British Columbia for a computer science degree, the trans woman Ashanti Mutinta then relocated to Montreal and in 2018 released two Bandcamp-streamable suck-an-MC hip-hop EPs that knew their way around: F.R.E.A.K.S (try "Pink Bandana") and the more assured Black Sailor Moon ("Voodoo" or "Aesthetic"). With its eight tracks clocking in at a shade over 20 minutes, this 2019 EP is a leap forward so chocked with content that it feels like an album. Undermining horrorcore's nihilist-cum-neanderthal devil worship by identifying with the leftwing humanists of the Satanic Temple, her "Bad Juju" aims a middle finger at a patriarchy she blames by name and her "Devil in a Moshpit" calls out the sexual predators who lurk in scrums she knows too well. Nor is she afraid to admit that sometimes she's afraid. "You Like My Body the Way It Is" is a love song that ventures into unfamiliar territory: "Maybe it's my boobs they could be a little bigger/Maybe it's my cooch they could seam it a little different." And the closing "Burn Me at the Stake" reminds us of what she already knows full well--that the suppression of her kind of gender defiance has an especially hideous history. A

Backxwash: God Has Nothing to Do With This Leave Him Out of It (Grimalkin) Polaris Music Prize-winning rapper deploys the black-metal arts to explain her sexuality to the African family that believed it was christening a boychild ("Black Sheep," "Amen") *

Bktherula: Nirvana (Warner) I know comparing this to Hassell and Eno's Fourth World Vol. 1 is too personal and obscure, an environmental album I find both irresistible and inexplicable deserves nothing less. On the major-label follow-up to this Atlanta teen's viral trap sensation "Tweakin' Together," one of those fly-by-night hip-hop hits so vague you could sometimes forget they exist before they're over, she and her man Digital Nas string 11 tracks into a seductive half hour of what I guess counts as tweakin' together, its occasional sexy parts obscured in a haze of shrooms, lean, and percoset that's as foreign to me as the Sturgis Rally. But just as I've never tired of Hassell and Eno's "anthropological minimalism" and "ambient esoteric kitsch," to quote my review of four decades ago, the artist born Brooklyn Rodriguez's druggy dreams of "Left my soul when I died but my energy came right back" and "This shirt cost two bucks but I'm too fly for this shit" have atmospheric staying power. And she's clear as a bell about one thing, mentions it more than once just to make sure: "It's 50 for a show, 50 for a show yeah." Fifty grand, she means. A MINUS

Phoebe Bridgers: If We Make It Through December (Dead Oceans) Fragile though her affect may be, Bridgers has no trouble darkening four Christmas songs. She can't be the first to cover the Merle Haggard tune for the holidays, but she is the first to name her Christmas collection for it. She's also the first to bedizen "Silent Night" with a news broadcast that cites killer cop Amber Guyger, Trump adjutant Mick Mulvaney, the opioid-scamming Purdue family, a Louisiana anti-abortion law, and, OK, the first all-female space walk, or to sing "Faithful friends who are dear to us will be near to us" and "Next year all our troubles will be out of sight" during a pandemic (though Judy Garland did during World War II, so make that a tie). Yet because songs about depression are so hard not to wallow in, I admire her cover of McCarthy Trenching's "Christmas Song" most of all: "You don't have to be alone to be lonesome/It's so easy to forget/The sadness comes crashin' like a brick through the window/And it's Christmas so no one can fix it." Cool. A MINUS

Etran de l'Ar: No. 1 (Sahel Sounds) From Agadez, the embattled Tuareg stronghold in Niger that generated Group Doueh, Group Inerane, and most exportably Group Bombino, comes another guitar band in that mold. This 2018 album is younger-sounding and a shade or two less raucous; its high-pitched ululations lack the distinctly female gravitas of Inerane's ecstatic, authoritative verses and Doueh's committed, supportive backup choruses. Then again, check out the finale here--pretty wild. A MINUS

Fontaines D.C.: Dogrel (Partisan) As with Idles or Sleaford Mods, these Dubliners' 2019 debut couches their rage in chants not songs because tunes are too kind to convey their righteousness; the only track to originate with their guitarist is titled "Roy's Tune" in case you missed the difference. Sometimes they demand our musical attention anyway, as in the outraged environmentalism of "Television Screens" or "Hurricane Laughter"'s blatant all-systems-down. But the obvious-to-witty one-line definitions of "sellout," "idiot," "phony," and "dilettante" that hook "Chequeless Reckless" doesn't inspire confidence in their political efficacy or smarts. B PLUS

Fontaines D.C.: A Hero's Death (Partisan) As no one seems to notice because that can't be true can it, surprise success has agreed with this formerly scuffling young band. They've turned philosophical and accommodating, gentler and more melodic. In the album's title tune, where its title isn't uttered even once, the "Life ain't always empty" refrain and its attendant homilies aren't in the least sarcastic. And the opening "I Don't Belong" repeats "I don't belong to anyone" in four choruses a dozen times, adding a slight rhythmic fillip by ending each chorus "I don't wanna belong to anyone." What do they mean by "anyone"? Their punky fanbase is my guess. They're saying get with the program, fellas. Bring your girlfriend to our shows if you've got one. And if not, why not? "Love is the main thing," after all. A MINUS

Mickey Guyton: Bridges (Capitol) Unusually conscious Nashville EP from unusually dark-skinned Nashville hopeful who had lived 37 years without ever singing about her race in so many words ("Black Like Me," "What Are You Gonna Tell Her?") ***

Clay Harper: Dirt Yard Street (self-released) Real-life musical enactment of just how sad bereavement can be ("Dirt Yard Street," "A Car I Remember") *

Jon Hassell: Seeing Through Sound: Pentimento Volume Two (Ndeya) As I've learned by endeavoring to distinguish this somewhat busier soundscape from volume one, a single variant is probably all any ordinary seeker after the esoterically restful can put to use ("Fearless," "Reykjavik") ***

Qwanqwa: Volume 3 (Wuzzawazee Industries) Showcasing Ethiopian Mesele Asmamaw's wah-wahing electric krar and soulful ululations, colored by American Kaethe Hostetter's five-string violin, motivated by a modest rhythm section that includes handclaps, here be the most arresting of three unobtrusively lively, fundamentally indistinguishable albums. The opening "Blen" nails that tune, the following "Somali" gives the krar room, the closing "Serg" works up some jam. Like that. B PLUS

Serengeti: With Greg From Deerhoof (Joyful Noise) Greg Saunier's free-form drums with scattered string-quartet effects are what Geti calls beats, occasioning an album over which he freestyles for 37 minutes, 17 devoted to the all-the-way-live "I Got Your Password"--which he shares, naturally, with his old pal Kenny Dennis, who brags or admits that he "Grew a mustache the size of Mike Ditka's forehead" while Geti reprises To the Max's "My wife's bull is a hibachi chef," meaning a fella whose vegetable-chopping skills he cannot deny. So right, there's also "Was America set up against the black man?/Will America ever care about the black man?" and "You like to hear N-bombs/You love N-bomb USA." But on his third or fourth album/EP of year zero of the rest of our lives, he comes as close as hip-hop can to pure abstraction--Bktherula is Taylor Swift by comparison. In fact, I dare either of these excellent ladies to rhyme "therapy," "parakeet," and "Cherokee" and mean it. Inspirational Verse: "When he made those peppers sizzle/I told my lady I understand." A MINUS

Shopping: All or Nothing (Fat Cat) Given how expertly they play, their insistence on repeating themselves doesn't just risk tedium--it makes you wonder whether they ever apply their trademark skepticism to their own minimalist dance-punk ("Follow Me," "Trust in Us") ***

Sunny Sweeney: Live at the Machine Shop (Aunt Daddy) "Hooked on the power of a song," as her new "Poet's Prayer" puts it on the way to "Things we missed back home/Are never lost on me/Kids growing up, funerals/Anniversaries," the baddest woman in country music noticed herself pushing 44, and with her second marriage behind her decided the pandemic was just the right time for a live album in a disused Austin studio. It opens with her bad new "Tie Me Up," about how bondage is one thing and staying for breakfast quite another, and before she's done specifies funeral arrangements in lieu of the inevitable "early grave": "Put my body in a boxcar and send me to the other side." Many musicians see the drawbacks of the troubadour life. Sweeney inhabits its tragic dimension while joking around about it. A MINUS

Chuck Willis: The Songs of Chuck Willis (Jasmine) Willis was a Georgia-born r&b singer whose first hit revived the traditional blues "C.C. Rider" in 1957 and whose prophetic double-sided "What Am I Living For"/"Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes" charted just after he died of peritonitis at 30 in 1958. A mellow baritone who never approached the sweetness, sophistication, or subtlety of Pookie Hudson, Percy Mayfield, Ben E. King, or others he and I could name, he wrote all the time, and while the 24 self-sung numbers on Willis the performer's half of this carefully curated double-CD provide a worthy overview, it's the 26 copyrights on the Willis-the-composer disc that might just wow you. Mostly these are impressively varied r&b records that seldom even went top 40, including Buddy Holly's "It's Too Late." The big exception was Elvis's top-10 1961 "I Feel So Bad"--the one that continues "Just like a ballpark on a rainy day," it was Willis who made that up. Instead, this collection documents the frantic base-covering of the late-'50s pop world from Steve & Eydie's showbiz "Take a Breath" to Ernest Tubb's solemn "What Am I Living For." With the verities shifting fast, Willis's songs helped confused players sound like they were on top of their game. A MINUS

And It Don't Stop, Dec. 9, 2020


Nov. 11, 2020 Jan. 13, 2021